Designing for impact

At Portable, we are passionate about partnering with government bodies and legal aid services to implement lasting change. We’ve had a lot of success (and challenges) along the way, and we’ve learnt a lot about how to design service interventions and innovative digital products. But if we had to boil our learning down, it’s really about balancing the relationship between creating solutions for the way things are and taking our partners on the journey toward how things could be. In this article, Senior Legal Designer, Luke Thomas, reflects on his work in applying human-centred design to the legal sector and key takeaways for creating lasting impact using design.

Creating solutions for the way things are

Approaching a design challenge holistically requires an understanding of what the current problems, people, opportunities and limitations are. 

Creating an understanding of the problems people are facing is the first step in exploring opportunities. Focusing on the problem first, instead of jumping to the solution, enables designers to dig deep into the problem space and look for less obvious, more innovative solutions. 

When looking at the problem space, it’s essential to prioritise understanding and designing for the people involved in it. Creating desirable solutions relies on understanding what people want out of the solution, and the best way to do this is through designing solutions alongside the people who will be using them.

Once we’ve understood the problem and the people involved, the next step is to identify quick wins that meet needs early for the people involved. A big part of creating impact is about prioritising opportunities and finding ways to create incremental change that can build momentum towards greater impact. Sometimes, the ideal solution is in progress, but it may be years away from being fully funded and rolled out. Finding the minimum viable solution and prioritising quick wins will allow us to meet people’s needs and create change sooner rather than later.

Sometimes going through a research and discovery process, designing alongside the people involved, and creating a solution to meet their needs still isn’t enough to create a lasting impact. 

Design projects, especially in complicated government or legal environments, can get caught up in external factors or fail to understand the system or key stakeholders involved in rolling out the solution. Understanding the limitations of design, and working with partners to overcome them, is a crucial part of creating impact.

Moving toward how things could be

There are plenty of reasons projects may fail or never reach the potential that was envisaged by the client and project team.

Design in its very nature is exploratory, creative and collaborative. Most times the methodology and mindsets serve us well, but it is certainly not the cure-all. Design in a government and legal context often comes with its own history of attempted solutions, change fatigue, and internal stakeholder politics – all of which isn’t clear in the brief. 

Designing human-centred solutions to problems is only one piece of the puzzle. It has to be intertwined with different methodologies such as policy design, or in the case of the legal sector, legislative reform, and be introduced against a patchwork of design legacies. The most powerful and impactful engagements recognise and establish a multi-disciplinary team of designers, policymakers and public sector leaders who can provide space for discovery and experimentation, and can identify how the solution will create impact beyond the project.

Sometimes, though, we can’t generate internal leadership support for projects. Most traditional consulting work or engagements that seek to improve, rather than transform, the current service system can work with standard procurement models and processes, supported by good project management and collaboration. Design projects are often seeking to uncover opportunities and make significant changes to the status quo, so they require a much more sophisticated composition of leadership from both the consultant and the client. 

It is unrealistic to think that organisational leaders will approve and be engaged in the final result or prototype if they have not been exposed to it earlier in the discovery phase. System change requires leadership from within the organisation to build support for the work, manage stakeholder concerns, build confidence and navigate projects through political approval processes. 

Some ways we try to do this include:

  • Identifying the internal champions of the work we’re trying to do early on
  • Regularly showcase ongoing work – this can be invaluable toward collecting new data and getting wider organisational buy-in
  • Consulting with key stakeholders early on in the process, including management and subject-matter experts

Finally, design solutions need a forum, so that they can be mapped against all of the other learnings. This ensures that a true systems analysis of the impact is possible. A design project usually starts to solve one problem. Going beyond an initial engagement to make real change requires zooming out to include more people, interactions and parts of the system. Sharing the processes and methods beyond the initial engagement allows them to be applied to similar problems, or parallel problems, or problems that sit just outside the frame. 

Without the openness to hear, learn, and debate, initial engagements are always in danger of existing for a fleeting moment in time. Often we address a specific problem, but to create policy, we need to understand how that problem (or solving that problem) contributes to the ecosystem. This stops us from failing to understand, and therefore addressing and designing for the ‘real’ or underlying problems, often identified as ‘external forces’ acting on the users we are designing for. 

Creating true impact through design is about creating these design solutions, building momentum with partners, and sharing and applying results throughout the wider system.

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